After the Tsunami: Rescuing Relics of Rikuzentakata’s History and Culture

Society Culture

The city of Rikuzentakata lost almost a tenth of its population to the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. The city’s lone surviving museum curator tells of the struggle to rescue the cultural properties that are a key part of the city’s identity.

March 11, 2011: Starkly Etched Memories

On March 11, 2011, I was working at my job as a curator at the Museum of Oceans and Shellfish in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, making entries into the database for the museum’s collection of shellfish specimens. At 2:46 PM I felt a quake like none I had experienced before. The shaking continued for over six minutes. When it finally stopped, I walked around the museum rooms and saw the great damage that the quake had caused. Fortunately there were no visitors inside the building, but the contents of display cases were scattered about, and a large tank that had contained various forms of marine life had fallen over, spreading water across the floor. I instructed the employees on duty to evacuate to city hall, after which I made the rounds of the building one more time, locked up, and headed to city hall myself.

When I got there, I found municipal employees and residents gathered in the parking lot and in the park across the street. We felt major aftershocks, and then came the final announcement over the loudspeakers: “The tsunami has breached the seawall. Evacuate to a high elevation.” I immediately headed for the roof of the city hall building, but the others who had evacuated from the museum went into the civic center, where many died.

The tsunami reached city hall, knocking down houses and pushing debris ahead of it as it came. At first the seawater was completely hidden by the debris, but then another great surge came, and the waters rose up as we watched. The three-story civic center across the street was completely submerged. I believe the wave was more than 15 meters high. I could only watch helplessly as scenes of calamity unfolded before my eyes: people trapped under collapsing houses, others being swallowed up by the wave as they tried to flee, a child on a rooftop being carried out by the water as it receded . . .

The Sole Surviving Curator

The following morning, after a sleepless night at city hall, I started working at disaster response. At that point I did not know the fate of my immediate family—parents, wife, and elementary-school-age son. Our house was washed away, but fortunately they all survived, and I saw them two days later. They had evacuated to the nursing home where my wife works, which was located on high ground. But through late March I stayed at the Yonesaki Community Center as part of a team handling the disaster relief. My job consisted largely of receiving shipments of relief goods for the local evacuation centers, sorting them, and dividing them up. It involved coordinating with Self-Defense Forces personnel and checking what the evacuation centers needed. I slept, as I worked, next to piled-up cardboard boxes full of relief supplies.

The situation was chaotic, and I was mentally and physically exhausted. But as I went about my work, I could not help wondering about the state of the city’s museums and facilities for cultural properties. So on the third day after the quake, I went to check on them. I visited the Rikuzentakata City Museum, the Museum of Oceans and Shellfish, the municipal library, and the facility for storage of unearthed cultural properties.

Top: Rikuzentakata City Museum (left) and the Museum of Oceans and Shellfish before the tsunami. Bottom: Exterior and interior views of Rikuzentakata City Museum after the disaster.

All four facilities had been completely flooded. Some of the objects had been carried away; all the rest had been soaked in seawater mixed with sludge. They had been left with coatings of sludge and soil, and quite a number of them were severely damaged. The objects that had been stored under climate-controlled conditions were sensitive to sudden changes in their environment, and I knew that they were liable to suffer further damage unless treated urgently. But there was nothing I could do at that point. The relief effort was understaffed, and human lives came first.

So I continued to work at disaster response day in and day out, with the state of the museum collections nagging at the back of my mind. Amid the ongoing confusion, we gradually learned who among the city and museum employees had survived and who had not. The loss of life was great, and I found out that I was the lone surviving curator.

The Rescue of Cultural Assets Begins

The Rikuzentakata City Museum had lost all six of its employees, and so I strongly felt that I must take the initiative in salvaging the city’s cultural properties. I enlisted the help of former museum employees and others, and on April 1 we began working at rescuing the disaster-struck objects from the various facilities.

The building interiors were full of mud and debris, making our work extremely difficult, and we were interrupted by frequent aftershocks, so the going was painfully slow. The process entailed first clearing away the debris and then extracting the objects from a layer of sediment more than a meter deep. This required professional expertise, so I sought assistance from the Prefectural Board of Education, the Iwate Prefectural Museum, and other institutions in the prefecture, and we gradually built up our team. Late in April the SDF started helping, and the work of clearing away debris picked up speed.

The rescued objects needed to be moved promptly to a safe place, but at the time all we had was a single mini truck, and road conditions were bad. It took two hours to make a round trip to the new safekeeping destination 17 kilometers away, a former elementary school building up in a mountainous area of the city. The moving process was basically completed on June 17, two and a half months after we started the rescue effort, though a few large items had to wait till later, like the 9.7-meter-long taxidermy specimen of a giant beaked whale.

Uniformed SDF personnel assist with the move of the beaked whale taxidermy specimen. Almost 10 meters long, it is the largest such exhibit in Japan.

Before the quake and tsunami, the Rikuzentakata City Museum had held some 230,000 items and the Museum of Oceans and Shellfish another 110,000; the additional objects at the municipal library and in the facility for storage of unearthed cultural properties brought the total to approximately 560,000 items. Among these was the collection of Rikuzentakata fishing implements, a Registered Tangible Cultural Property. Most of the objects were donations from city residents, and they are important physical records of the city’s history and culture. We recovered around 460,000 items made of a variety of materials; treating them was a task requiring expert guidance.

Trial and Error in the Stabilization Process

The recovered objects needed to undergo stabilization treatment; otherwise they would develop mold and deteriorate further. The stabilization process involved (1) cleaning, (2) disinfecting, (3) desalination, (4) drying, and (5) follow-up observation. But never before in Japan or elsewhere had so many cultural properties been damaged in a single disaster like this, and in many respects there were no established models to follow. So we sought expert guidance from the cultural properties rescue committee that was established by the national government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs in response to the disaster.

Work on the damaged cultural properties progressed under the direction of experts in restoration from Tokyo National Museum and Iwate Prefectural Museum. To stabilize the materials, it was necessary to address biological causes of deterioration (such as mold), chemical causes (such as salt), and physical causes (cracking and deformation from sudden drying of items soaked in seawater, along with damage from the tsunami). At the initial stage the team members, operating with little room to move among all the rescued properties, struggled to deal with the mold growing under the humid conditions of the rainy season.

The recovered items, after being moved to a safe site, have been undergoing stabilization treatment to keep them from deteriorating further. Top row: old documents being disinfected (left) and cleaned. Bottom: cleaning of archaeological properties.

One of the areas in which there was no established method was the treatment of seawater-caused damage. People at the institutions providing guidance have considered various methods, and we have implemented the ones that they have determined were safe. But we still have no treatment method for a huge number of items, such as letters written in ink that will dissolve if washed in water, leather products that will stiffen, and oil and watercolor paintings.

Saving the Cultural Properties That Define Rikuzentakata’s Identity

Rikuzentakata City Museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1959, was the first registered public museum in the Tōhoku region. Its collection includes many items of high academic value, such as fishing implements found in shellfish mounds from the prehistoric Jōmon period. (Some examples from Rikuzentakata are also exhibited at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

When we started our rescue effort for cultural properties three weeks after the disaster, some locals voiced anger, saying we should be looking for people, not things. It was even suggested that we should “throw that stuff away.” But other people felt differently. Some came to view the site where we were working; as one person explained: “My house was washed away, and I lost everything. I thought that if I came here, there would be things remaining from Takata [the short form of the city’s name].”

Survivors dug assiduously through the debris where their houses had stood in hopes of finding mementoes of their lives. Such items offer physical confirmation of who they are; they are part of their personal histories. The cultural properties and other objects in the museum’s collection play a similar role for Rikuzentakata as a whole, offering physical confirmation of the city’s identity. With the passage of time, I believe a new Rikuzentakata will take shape. But much may be lost in the process. A fine new set of buildings may serve our material needs, but our spirits will be empty unless we have reminders of the city’s legacy: its nature, its history, and its culture.

We want Rikuzentakata to be a city that we can present with pride to the world, and the source of this pride is the city’s identity. Of the objects at Rikuzentakata City Museum, 99.9% are donations from citizens. Each item is an embodiment of the feelings of the person who donated it. We must treasure these physical confirmations of the lives that people led, supported by the natural bounty around them, of the history that they made, and of the culture that they created, and we must see to it that these objects are preserved for centuries to come. We still have them today because those who came before us have saved them through repeated tsunami. We cannot lose them now.

“Please do not take away museum properties. They are important treasures for restoring Takata’s nature, history, and culture. (City Board of Education)” So reads the note. But most of the Board of Education employees died in the disaster; none could have left this message. Regardless of who may have written it in the board’s name, it was profoundly significant. (Photo by Maekawa Saori.)

The Hard Road Ahead

On a personal note, in late June 2011 my family and I moved into one of the temporary housing units put up on the athletic field at Yonesaki Junior High School, and we lived there for a bit over three years. Out of concern for everybody’s health, my son Ryūnosuke visited all the units and invited the residents to join him in group morning radio calisthenics; he kept this up without missing a single day the entire time we were there.(*1)  In July 2014 our new home was finally completed, and our life in temporary quarters ended. The new house is located on an inland site, so we can no longer see the ocean from our windows. I rather miss that.

Many other people, though, are still living in temporary units without knowing when and where they will be able to settle down. And numerous problems need to be addressed. The district where our museums and other facilities were located is now off limits; the plan is to turn this into an elevated area. The city intends to rebuild the Rikuzentakata City Museum by 2018, but it may be difficult to meet this target.

Though the road ahead is a hard one, there is something we must keep in mind especially at a time like this: A recovery that does not save the treasures from our past is not a true recovery at all.

 (Originally written in Japanese on March 2, 2015. Title photo: The Museum of Oceans and Shellfish in Rikuzentakata after the tsunami of March 11, 2011. This and photos below courtesy of Rikuzentakata City Museum.)

(*1) ^ NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) Radio 1 carries a 10-minute calisthenics program every morning from 6:30. Most Japanese are familiar with the NHK rajio taisō (radio calisthenics) routine, which is also used for warming-up exercises at schools and elsewhere.

Great East Japan Earthquake Tōhoku tsunami restoration Rikuzentakata museums cultural properties